Mass Movement or Alternative Economy: Dealing with the Economic Crisis
Building democratic mass movements in our workplaces and communities should be the strategy for combating the capitalist economic crisis and advancing revolutionary struggle. An alternative economic sector does not have the capacity to win short-term reforms or fundamentally transform society
The current economic crisis has highlighted, in the boldest terms, the fact that a capitalist economy and the politicians that represent it are unable and unwilling to provide for the needs of working people. While thousands of people have to grapple with losing their homes or jobs rich capitalists were propped up with bailouts, not held accountable for the crisis, and continued to get richer. Working people all over the world have recognized that this is a crisis caused by capitalism, yet the capitalists are not paying the burden, the workers are. In Europe in particular this has resulted in mass movements led by unions and community organizations that are directly confronting capitalism and the state that supports it while at the same time envisioning and building in its place a new world based on solidarity, equality, and liberty. The question is, what is the best way to deal with economic crisis? Is it to develop a mutualist "noncapitalist" economic sector in which co-ops and "peoples banks" could be competitive alternatives with capitalist business? Or should we focus our efforts on building a mass movement of militant revolutionary worker organizations within our existing workplaces and communities? It is the latter in which we can realize our collective power, confront capitalism and finally overturn it to fundamentally transform society.
Mutualism is known as a form of "market socialism", and like other tendencies of socialism and anarchism, it came about in the mid to late 1800s as a response to the rapid changes that accompanied the second industrial revolution. A leading figure behind mutualism was Pierre Joseph Proudhon, a man ahead of his time, and who would soon become known as a forebear to anarchism. Proudhon's mutualism contributed greatly to the anticapitalist movement of the time. Proudhon articulated the need for self-management of laborers over the means of production as well as a hatred for capitalism and a deep distrust of the state. Proudhon envisioned a world where free artisan co-ops and "peoples banks" would take on the functions of society. It is important to keep the time period in mind for this. This was a time when class society was very different. The laboring class (i.e. those that did most of the labor that produced capitalist value) consisted mostly of slaves, serfs, and peasants. Skilled tradesman and artisans were a relatively privileged minority of commodity producers. This rapidly changed with the second industrial revolution. In industrial countries laborers began to be isolated to large-scale factory production. Once artisans now became wage laborers as the means of production became increasingly consolidated into the hands of a small group of capitalists and property owners. Artisans could no longer compete with this new economic force and mutualism became the effort to defend the artisan life. As you can imagine this position had little relevance with those from the peasantry as most lived on rented land and were very indebted. The prospect of owning one's own land or contributing to a viable alternative economic sector that would overthrow the existing landowners was simply not practical. The same could be said for the wageworkers. Although setting up a small business and being one's own boss (or as part of a cooperative) was certainly appealing it was completely impractical as most lacked the necessary income to invest in people's banks and small entrepreneurial endeavors. Unions and radical organizations proved to offer the working class and the peasantry a much stronger organ for fighting for their united class interests.
Today the world's wealth is consolidated into even fewer hands. And while the vast majority of people will never experience this wealth, it still exists. It exists because workers and farmers have created it; the capitalists and bosses only own it. With this realization we should reject mutualism as the end-all approach for confronting the capitalist economic crisis. Mutualism advocates that workers should create a noncapitalist economic sector of cooperatives that could compete with the big capitalist businesses and banks and gradually overturn the existing order. The creation of cooperatives is great insofar as it demonstrates the practical experience of economic self-management. It cannot however compete with the economic might, political backing, and armed force of modern capitalism. A noncapitalist sector could not have the same resources at its disposal and therefore could not beat the capitalist sector at its own game. Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt get it right in their book Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism when they say, "On the contrary, the capitalist sector would conquer the noncapitalist one: economic pressures would lead cooperatives to hire wage labor, resulting in exploitation"(p.84). This is historically proven. Either the cooperatives are conquered and must "sell-out" to an extent or they are crushed by force. The mutualist approach also supports private property and private profits in their "noncapitalist" market utopia. Simply put, mutualism does not significantly challenge the status quo. We must reject the legitimacy of private property all together in our movements for we can only reach our greatest potential in a society based on collective ownership by farmers and workers. Historically this question of property rights isolated mutualists from the rest of the radical left wing movement. In 1869 the issue was debated at length within the First International where anarchists voted with Marxists against the mutualists and thus solidified common ownership as a fundamental principle and core demand of working class struggle.
Creating a noncapitalist sector is like reinventing the wheel. Again, there is a massive amount of wealth in this world that was created by the hard work of millions who will never realize it. We need not invest what little money we are surviving off of into alternative banks or noncapitalist business ventures. Instead we should focus our energies organizing in our workplaces and communities building revolutionary struggle where the means of production and wealth already exists. Through organization we become collectively empowered and with this power we gain the ability to make and more importantly WIN demands from the capitalist class. This power has a truly revolutionary character that is capable of transforming society. This is historically proven. Every victory from an end to child labor to the eight-hour workday to the end of racial segregation can be attributed directly to organized struggle by workers organizations and community groups. This power does not have to stop with simply winning a slice of the pie here and there. Instead its aims should be set on the entire bakery. Building movements have short-term goals and long-term visions. The short-term goals are winning demands and forcing reforms that have very real impacts on people's daily lives. As an article from The Northeast Anarchist #10 is titled, "Where they retreat, We Must Advance". This is what fighting on behalf of short-term goals means, it is the working class fighting and winning improvements for itself and with each victory there is the potential to keep advancing. However there are severe limits to this. The centralized state is a brutally oppressive institution whether it claims the interests of the working class or is a representative system that only represents the interests of the rich. The centralized state can only be counted on to truly represent the interests of a privileged minority. Thus, the long-term vision must be to build a revolutionary consciousness within these mass movements that will confront capitalism and the state transforming reform efforts into revolutionary aspirations and struggle.
Mutualism also tries to avoid direct confrontation with oppressive institutions. Capitalists and politicians have never ceded any of the gains we have made without a fight. Right now in the face of the current economic crisis working families that have been order to leave their homes after a bank foreclosed on their building are taking direct action by organizing their fellow tenants and other local activist and in some cases occupying their foreclosed home. Through their efforts they have seen tremendous results and have gotten their homes back. In Chicago at the Republic Windows and Doors factory workers were given notice that the factory was shutting down and they must get new jobs. The workers were left high and dry so they used direct action. They occupied the factory and held daily demonstrations until the company had to agree to their demands. There are countless other examples of organizing in the face of this economic crisis that have proved successful. The idea that an alternative economic sector could beat out the capitalist sector without a confrontation is impossible for its been proven countless times that capitalists will do everything they can including the use of physical force to protect their interests. Only a mass movement utilizing a diverse array of tactics can muster the power to successfully combat such attacks.
This economic crisis has been levied upon the people by the rich capitalists and the fact that they are getting away with maintaining their profits while the rest of us struggle is an act of class war, a war that they are winning right now. Joe hill wrote, "If we workers take a notion/ we can stop all speeding trains/ every ship upon the ocean/ we can tie with mighty chains/ every wheel in the creation/ every mine and evry mill/ fleets and armies of all nations/ will at our command stand still". We do not need to create an alternative economic sector to have a world based on equality and freedom. We must "take a notion", organize, and fight for the incredible wealth and means of production we have already created collectively and then use it not for the greed of a few but rather for the needs of us all.